A wave of online activism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality and white supremacy flooded the internet and social media platforms in 2020. Emerging from this wave came educational infographics, blogs, and multimedia on anti-racism, which covered some terminology that became popularized during the movement. The word “unlearning” is one of them, and you may have already frequently heard it from many people online who sought to be better and “educate themselves” on anti-racism. So what exactly does unlearning mean, anyway?
Usually paired with the word “relearning” in a sentence to demonstrate self-reflection, “unlearning” means to forego previous knowledge and understanding of something to acquire a new and often better perspective of it. To unlearn something is to trace back the origins of a piece of old information, examine its consequences in your life and others, and break down the biases and emotions attached to it to give space for new information.
In the process of unlearning, you may ask yourself:
How did I know this to be true?
What are the origins of this information, and what are its flaws?
Why did I align with this information or accept it to be true?
Who was affected by this belief I held and how?
What steps can I take to amend for any wrong actions caused by this belief?
What are my values, and how do they impact my learning?
How can I be open to new information and ensure they are bias-free and accurate?
Though they may seem difficult in theory or uncomfortable in practice, these questions are vital to unlearning. This importance brings up the question: why is unlearning so essential, and how is it any different from learning?
Well, the term “unlearning” became popularized in anti-racism work due to the entrenchment of racist beliefs in society, which requires a process of challenging oppressive ideologies (systems of ideas and beliefs) influenced by one’s background, education, and culture, amongst other things. “Unlearning” quickly soared to popularity in the mainstream as activists encouraged people to engage in this process in favour of dismantling oppressive systems. To get people to accept and advocate for anti-racist beliefs, they must first engage in unlearning old schools of thought.
While learning is well known as the process of acquiring new knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes, etc., it is not the same as unlearning. To unlearn is to do the opposite of acquiring – it is to forfeit and lose old knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes, etc. To “relearn,” which means to learn something again but under a new lens, demands unlearning first. When people say they’re engaging in the process of “unlearning and relearning,” they are questioning the knowledge and beliefs they had and examining how they were affected by societal norms and biases. They are making space for new modes of thinking and information that would have previously met resistance from them. For a renewed and in the context of this article, an anti-racist outlook on life to occur, unlearning needs to occur.
So, how does one unlearn racist ideologies?
You must acknowledge you have racist ideologies.
The greatest challenge to unlearning anything, in general, is severe resistance to the idea that your current worldview on an issue is wrong. And in the case of unlearning racism, there is a lot of pushback to the notion that one’s beliefs and knowledge on specific issues can cause or have inflicted harm to Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. It shouldn’t be the case, but unfortunately, the human mind often disregards and despises criticism to protect itself from guilt, shame and other “negative” emotions. This protective mechanism becomes a problem when that rigid old mindset blocks you from listening to marginalized communities on pressing issues affecting them. At the same time, you continue to perpetuate oppressive attitudes or actions, knowingly or unknowingly.
What can you do to address this?
Think of it this way – having guilt over former beliefs that contributed to a group’s oppression, directly or indirectly, shows that you are human. The guilt is meant to be productive and channelled into unlearning those harmful beliefs, not block you from understanding or accepting new anti-racist perspectives. A newly turned ally to a marginalized community is better than a continued oppressor. Acknowledging that an ideology was racist leads to unpacking and unlearning, which opens room for learning one new anti-racist ideology.
You must critically examine your racist ideologies and question everything.
Though this process might sound overwhelming, it is relatively easy once you’ve acknowledged your racist ideologies, and it resolves any unproductive guilt you may still have. Go over the questions needed for “unlearning” outlined earlier and be intentional with your answers. This step isn’t meant to be rushed or completed in a day. One could even say it’s a lifetime journey depending on how deep your racist ideologies go. Why did you align with this information or accept it to be true? Asking yourself questions like that will make you examine various aspects of your life, education, upbringing, etc. Your implicit biases and hidden consciousness will start to unravel for the better. You will be aware of racial inequities you didn’t notice before or didn’t even understand or accept. You will be more receptive to anti-racist and other anti-oppressive ideas and grow as an ally and person.
And most importantly, proceed to relearning and doing impactful social justice work. Acknowledging and unpacking racist ideologies as steps to unlearning lays the groundwork for truly understanding and benefiting from anti-racist discussions, materials, and learning content. Consuming social media infographics, YouTube videos, books/articles, and other anti-racism content is futile if the process of unlearning hasn’t already begun in your life. Successfully acknowledging racist ideologies will enable you to accept or even look at any information that contradicted your previous beliefs as your resistance isn’t there anymore or, at least, not as strong as before. And unpacking racist ideologies by critically questioning them will let you engage well with anti-racist learning material, as you’ll start seeking answers in them after looking inwards first. Afterwards, move on to concrete social justice work such as advocating (signing petitions, educating your community members who still hold racist ideologies, creating art or writing informational pieces about your learning), protesting/organizing, paying reparations/supporting BIPOC groups, and so on.
The power of unlearning is not to be underestimated – it can open up closed doors, build bridges and restore broken connections. It can contribute positively to BIPOC resilience and flourishing. It can dismantle oppressive systems and build a progressive and inclusive future for everyone. Ready to begin or continue a journey of unlearning racist ideologies and other oppressive beliefs? Follow the steps outlined above and sign up for the anti-racism daily newsletter – https://www.antiracismdaily.com/ or check out this list of anti-racist books – https://www.roomofonesown.com/unlearning-racism-learning-antiracism for learning resources. Do remember that the journey doesn’t just stop at unlearning. Relearning and concrete action (advocating, protesting, donating, restorative/reparative justice work, etc.) must follow. Good luck.